Dancing for Dollars

You've seen them at the clubs. Flamboyantly costumed, gyrating up there on a platform. Chances are good they're working for Pamela Canellas.

At Level on a late-March night, I sit with three girls in the club's dank bowels. It's 1:30 a.m. and we've been waiting almost two hours for Canellas to deliver costumes so we can dance the required three sets and get out of here by 4:00 a.m.

Thirty-one-year-old Elsy Barrios is asleep on a ratty couch. Her black mane is swung across her face to block whatever sliver of light makes it through the door. A lithe pixie named Mary, just off a plane from her hometown of Paris, is chatting in French on her cell phone with her boyfriend. A woman dressed in ripped jeans and a knit tube top bursts through the door with the fierceness of Grace Jones. "Where are the costumes?" she asks, lighting a cigarette. "We're going to go really soon, right?"

Colby Katz

Elsy swings her legs over the edge of the couch, flips open her cell phone, and calls Canellas. Her sunglasses hang on the edge of her nose as she speaks in Spanish to the boss. She hangs up. "They are on their way," she says, rolling her eyes. "I tell you," the former Venezuelan ballet dancer says in broken English, "this happen all the time. It is frustrated. Very, like, annoying."

A member of Miami's New Century Dance Company, Elsy has little patience for the lowbrow world of club dancing. "I like Pamela. She helps the girls, and she helps me," Elsy says. "But to me, she is -- how should I say -- a baby. In the ballet it is a military, very strict. Here it is too loose for me. It seems unprofessional. She is trying, but to me she is still a child."

A suitcase filled with plastic bags that contain costumes is thrown into this makeshift dressing room. No can tell who tossed it. The girls devour the case. Elsy and Mary wiggle into bright yellow-and-green skirts with hems held straight out by wirelike hoops. They pin giant butterflies in their hair and grab glittery wands, then quickly make their way through Level's packed crowd to dance atop an opera booth.

Up next: me and Ms. Jones. We are wearing J.Lo body suits with black, fingerless gloves, which I guess make it easier to grip the checkered racing flags I'm handed. I'm not quite sure what I'm supposed to be, perhaps a sexy NASCAR babe. Grace lowers the zipper that runs down the front of the bodysuit and lifts her breasts into her black, push-up bra. She pulls a black wig over her cropped white afro and brushes it out. I lacquer my lips, smooth my hair, and sprinkle glitter between my breasts (a trick that is supposed to make me appear a cup-size bigger).

Grace takes another drag on her cig and motions for us to go. We push through the crowd and she helps me climb a dilapidated wooden ladder to a stage platform. Careful not to trip on thick cables snaking across the platform, I dance. Grace is snarling. She's holding onto a thin metal pipe, which is supposed to keep us from falling off the edge of the platform and into the swarm below. She's thrusting her pelvis and whipping her checkered flag. I notice that she is consciously not looking at me. So I don't look at her. I stare into the strobe lights and they blind me. Occasionally I break my aloofness and fixate on some guy in the audience who is staring at me. My next fifteen-minute set is spent wrestling a two-and-a-half-foot-tall feathered headpiece that catches a strong blast of air from a vent and nearly knocks me over. I wear a sequined skirt and a matching bikini top.

The DJ is spinning house, a music genre I don't much like, but I hear from other dancers that I should be thankful for these four-to-the-floor beats because I'm more likely to get groped in a hip-hop club.

As required I have purchased the things Canellas requires of new dancers -- short black dance pants, black-and-flesh-colored fishnets, one black and one white padded push-up bra, a wig cap, and two pairs of go-go boots: one white, one black. Total cost: about $300.

That night I earn $100 and decide not to quit my day job. Most dancers keep their daytime gigs because Hot Jam rarely provides a dependable schedule; they are usually on-call as promoters make last-minute party decisions. For dancers to earn anything resembling a decent living, they must be in demand at several clubs and work more than one place per night each week.

Dilcia Muñoz is a regular at Club Space and Level. The twenty-year-old began dancing two years ago to pay her way through Miami-Dade Community College. Trained at Salsa Lovers dance studios, which is owned and founded by her brother-in-law, she was a natural fit at Hot Jam. She often performs in more than one club a night, making ends meet by also appearing on a Spanish-language television show called Wet and Wild twice a month. Recently Muñoz beat out hundreds of other women for a spot in a Lenny Kravitz video, a job for which Canellas acted as her agent. "I got paid $300 for the video and Pamela, I think, took $60," Muñoz says. "But I really don't honestly know what the numbers are. There are some dancers who are curious about that."

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